Saturday, March 8, 2014
Oh, Rebecca! What a hold you have on our imaginations! I last read the huge bestseller suspense/romance/slightly gothic novel “Rebecca” (Doubleday, 1938), by the romantically named English author (and it is her real name) Daphne du Maurier, perhaps 40 years ago. There was also a classic, very popular movie, directed by Hitchcock, based on the novel. Recently, reviews of a new novel (“Alena,” by Rachel Pastan) loosely based on “Rebecca,” prompted me to re-read the original. (I plan to read the new novel too, and will likely post on it here as well.) This classic novel holds up quite well. Granted, the level of suspense and goth-ness seems tame by today’s standards (but that is fine with me!). And true, the novel is consistently overwritten. For example, there are far too many portentous hints of terrible events to come, foreboding sentences such as (I paraphrase these here from many examples) “I felt a chill, as if something terrible was about to happen,” or “I knew then that nothing would ever be the same after this.” It is also overwritten in terms of its frequent redundant sentences and phrases, such as (again, paraphrased) “I felt all alone, as if I were the only one in the world; no one else was there for me; no one would help me; maybe no one ever would.” But despite these faults, this novel is still compelling, even gripping, and I truly enjoyed re-reading it. The nameless narrator, the pretty but shy and a bit mousy second wife of Maxim de Winter, goes to his magnificent country home/estate, Manderley, after their marriage, and finds that the ghostly presence of his first wife, Rebecca, pervades the house and surroundings. There are many mysterious events and cryptic comments, and the narrator feels she cannot escape the shadow of her beautiful and apparently perfect predecessor. One false but perhaps necessary note is that the narrator is amazingly dense about putting together the various clues about Rebecca’s true character and about the events of her life and death. Mostly this new young wife is intimidated and even, at one point, close to a mental breakdown. The evil housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who was a fierce supporter of Rebecca, seems intent on destroying the second wife. But when her husband encounters difficulties, the new Mrs. de Winter seems to mature and gain in confidence; she becomes strong on his behalf. To say much more would be to spoil the suspense of the novel. I am glad that I re-read this classic novel of romance and suspense, one that has influenced generations of other writers and filmmakers.
Tuesday, March 4, 2014
Not to sound like a fangirl, because this is a serious feeling about a serious book, but…I love, love, love this book! In “My Life in Middlemarch” (Crown, 2014), Rebecca Mead writes about her lifelong connection to, guidance by, and love of the incomparable George Eliot novel. Many have called “Middlemarch” the greatest novel in English, and Virginia Woolf famously stated that it was “one of the few English books written for grown-up people.” Mead’s book is a blend of biography (of Eliot); analysis of “Middlemarch,” its settings and characters and themes; and description of the ways in which the novel has spoken to her and even intersected with events of her life over the years. Mead writes on the critical role that great novels can play in readers’ lives, as “Middlemarch” has played in hers. She states that reading is “an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself. There are books that comprehend us as much as we understand them…There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows….This kind of book becomes part of our own experience….” (p. 16). This quotation illustrates Mead’s belief, which I share, that different readings of a great novel at different stages of one’s life provide different experiences, different understandings. Just for one small example: of course Mead identifies with Dorothea Brooke, but she also focuses on how, on later readings of "Middlemarch" in later life, she realizes the strength and importance of Mary’s and Fred’s romance and marriage. She even shows some sympathy for Mr. Casaubon. And speaking of marriage, Mead believes that this novel is one of the most brilliantly insightful ones on the topic of marriage and its inner workings. When researching this book (and it was intensive research), Mead, an American writer originally from England herself, travels to places Eliot lived and wrote, and reads documents in various archives in England and in the U.S. She is in awe as she looks at and touches Eliot’s original manuscripts, in Eliot’s own handwriting, as well as letters to, from, and about the great novelist. Mead is a thoughtful, engaging writer, and I found her book highly informative, original, and compelling. I too love and admire “Middlemarch,” I have read it several times over the years, and I have written about it here and elsewhere. But Mead showed me new aspects of Eliot’s, and the novel’s, greatness and humanity.
Saturday, March 1, 2014
Some of the ingredients of the novel “That Part Was True” (Grand Central Publishing, 2014), by Deborah McKinlay, are awfully familiar. It is epistolary: an American writer, Jackson Cooper, and a British fan, Eve Petworth, carry on a correspondence across the ocean. They each find solace in the correspondence and their growing knowledge of each other’s lives. They also share a love of food and cooking, and they exchange recipes, often those with sentimental associations such as “my grandmother’s recipe for…”. (Novels with food themes are popular these days.) A positive point is that the characters are “grown-ups,” in their forties. Between them they have various issues with family members, significant others, illness, anxiety, writer’s block, and more. There is some desultory discussion of their possibly meeting in Paris, with a hint of mystery about whether their epistolary friendship could turn into romance; I won’t reveal whether the meeting or the romance happen. The novel has a somewhat ambiguous surprise ending. This slim novel, as I have indicated, draws a little too heavily on some rather tired topics and approaches; nevertheless, it is written with a light touch, and is an enjoyable, not too taxing read.
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
Elizabeth Spencer, at the age of 92, has just -- a decade after the last book she published -- published a new collection of short stories, "Starting Over" (Liveright/Norton, 2014). I am in awe of this great Southern writer, and her producing these wonderful stories at this stage in her life is impressive and inspiring. Her stories are as good as ever, both down-to-earth and haunting. She writes of marriages, love affairs, small towns, mysteries, secrets, and misunderstandings. But most of all she writes about the tangled relationships within families. Spencer understands both the frailties and the resilience of her characters. Her stories are set in the South, and are evocative of that geography and ethos, but they resonate far beyond as well.
Thursday, February 20, 2014
I have written about English writer Joanna Trollope as one of the “middlebrow” writers whose work is not literarily significant, but is definitely a level or two above bestseller-type books written purely for entertainment. I have read several of her novels and enjoyed them. But reading her “Friday Nights” (Bloomsbury, 2008) reminded me of the gap between a book one enjoys and a book that satisfies. This story about six women friends of different ages and in different situations who meet regularly on, yes, Friday nights, and their intertwining and changing lives and relationships, is a kind of story I am quite fond of. And it has its moments. Characters grow, change, and learn about themselves. There are moments of female friendship, moments of romance, moments of marital problems and then reconciliation, moments of worries about children as well as total dedication to those children. There is the man one of the women starts dating, a man who gets too involved in the lives of the friends and spreads some dissension in the process; there is some heavy symbolism representing him as a seemingly amiable but in fact disruptive serpent-in-the-garden type. But the depictions of the characters don’t run very deep and are not very nuanced. The jacket copy calls Trollope’s novels “sparklingly readable,” and that is true, but it turns out not to be enough. “Friday Nights” is a quick read, and mildly enjoyable, but finally it left me unsatisfied, as empty calories do.
Monday, February 17, 2014
Writers Francine Prose and Zoe Heller, in yesterday's New York Times Book Review (2/16/14, p. 31), discuss an important topic about book criticism/reviews: should negative book reviews be published? Prose writes that when she was a young reviewer, she sometimes gleefully skewered books she was reviewing; she then resolved not to review books she considered bad, and continued that policy for 30 years. Recently she has rethought that stance; she has decided that if a book is bad, “life is too short not to say so.” She goes on to say that “It depresses me to see talented writers figuring out they can just phone it in, and that no one will know the difference.” (Note that an example of Prose’s new practice is her recent takedown of Donna Tartt’s new novel, “Goldfinch”; I wrote on 2/7/14 about that review, and how I felt vindicated by it because of my similar reservations about the book.) Heller concurs with Prose’s stance on negative reviews, stating that although negative reviews can be distressing, writers need and even want to receive rigorous criticism. They are, after all, “not kindergartners bringing home their first potato prints for the admiration of their parents, but grown-ups who have chosen to present their work in the public arena.” I agree with these two writers. And although I do not claim to be a “critic” or even a “reviewer,” even in my much humbler role as a reader sharing her reading experiences and her responses to what she reads, I soon came to realize that I should not write only about the books I thought were excellent, but about the others I read that were perhaps good in some ways but lacking in others, and about the occasional truly bad book. (Here I want to give credit to my friend Mary V., who soon after I began the blog, encouraged me to write about the bad as well as the good.)
Saturday, February 15, 2014
Readers may remember that I am a big fan of Richard Russo, one of my favorite living authors. His novels, such as “Empire Falls,” “Bridge of Sighs,” "Straight Man," and “That Old Cape Magic” are so real, human and humane; so beautifully written; and so enjoyable to read. I read all of these novels and more before starting this blog in 2010; since starting it I have reviewed Russo’s moving memoir, “Elsewhere” (11/10/12) and a boxed collection of booklets of stories and novellas titled “Interventions” (2/24/13). I have just picked up and read one of Russo’s earlier works, “The Whore’s Child, and Other Stories” (Knopf, 2002), and it did not disappoint. There are seven satisfying stories. The stories often focus on childhood, family, and relationships. The title story is about a nun who was, as indicated, the daughter of a whore, and was given over to a convent as a very young girl; this story is unusual, sad, and yet life-affirming. In fact, all of Russo’s work, although often describing characters who grow up in unpromising settings and deal with serious problems, is ultimately life-affirming, but not in a corny or smarmy way. This book, like the others I have read by Russo, is immensely readable; I devoured it quickly. As with all his work, I highly recommend it.